Planners Seek Public Input on the Future of Transportation

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As local officials gear up to adopt a new long-term plan for Orange County’s transportation system, they’re asking the public to weigh in on what types of priorities they’d like to see.

During Monday’s Orange County Transportation Authority board meeting, officials noted that traffic is expected to become worse and worse as the population grows and highways are stretched to their limits.

“The roads are just going to become at some point … unpassable at rush hour,” said OCTA Director Jeff Lalloway, who is also an Irvine city councilman.

“As the county gets more urbanized, we need to focus on our train system,” he added.

Officials plan to hold a 45-day public comment period, with an open house on the topic planned for May 7 from 5 to 7 p.m. at OCTA headquarters.

The long-range transportation plan, which is updated every four years, outlines Orange County’s transportation vision for the next 20 years, with the county’s population expected to grow by 400,000 people over that period.

That’s equivalent to adding the population of Oakland or Miami, OCTA Planning Manager Charlie Larwood told board members.

The growth is expected to have major impacts on traffic congestion, with officials projecting a 166-percent increase in total delays.

“The performance of our transportation system will decline substantially” without needed investments, said Larwood.

State transportation officials agreed.

“Conditions get worse. And much, much worse” under current projections, said Caltrans District 12 Director Ryan Chamberlain.

Such dire predictions have been pointed to by alternative transportation advocates as underscoring a need to make it safe and viable for people who want to bike, walk and use public transit.

About half of all trips in the U.S. are three miles or less, and a fourth of trips are one mile or less, biking advocate Jeff Miller told a Santa Ana audience last week.

Converting even a small number of those trips into transit or bike trips would have a big impact on traffic, advocates say.

A 5-percent drop in car use leading up to the recession was associated with a 30-percent drop in traffic congestion, Miller said.

As for the long-term plan, OCTA staff’s “preferred” approach calls for adding new bus and streetcar service, 20 weekday Metrolink trains, 650 miles of bikeways, 820 lane miles on the Master Plan of  Arterial Highways network, 200 freeway lane miles, 242 tollway lane miles, as well as 450 van pools and station vans.

It would require about $36 billion split among local, state and federal sources to fund it.

Officials noted that increasing public transit and bike trips would be key to reducing travel times, along with adding lanes on certain sections of freeway.

“Transit trips are up, delays reduced and travel speeds improve” under the preferred scenario, Larwood told board members.

North and central county have the highest density, Larwood noted, making those areas a focus for improving bus service. Rapid bus service is emphasized in the proposed plan, as is more Metrolink train service.

OCTA staff are also exploring extensions of the proposed streetcar systems in Anaheim and Garden Grove.

It also emerged that recent reports of the death of the controversial state Route 241 toll road extension could be premature. A Transportation Corridor Agencies or TCA official said Monday that the project could still eventually move forward.

“As far as keeping it in a long-range plan, TCA is still … suggesting that it be included,” said Valerie McFall, the agency’s director of environmental services.

But if the extension remains shelved, the question will likely turn to who will pick up the tab for traffic relief for Interstate 5 in the far South County.

OCTA Chairman Shawn Nelson, who is also a county supervisor, ultimately asked staff to explore whether OCTA can take charge of the Route 241 extension project itself.

“What stops our agency from getting involved?” Nelson asked in his direction to staff.

Orange County’s long-term planning comes as funding for transportation dwindles at the state and federal level.

The state is $296 billion “in the hole” on transportation funding, said Chamberlain of Caltrans. “I think we need to start asking that question: How do we start to fill a funding gap?” he told OCTA board members.

And as public demand increases for transportation options other than cars, Caltrans officials said they’re working to adopt a new philosophy.

Caltrans realizes that it needs to shed its view of itself as a “state highway agency” and instead recognize that it’s a “state transportation agency,” said Chamberlain.

“We recognize that we are slow to change,” Chamberlain told OCTA board members. “We need to be more risk-averse. We need to be more nimble” and open to community needs.

“I think this is a sea change,” remarked OCTA Director Todd Spitzer, who is also a county supervisor.

The draft plan is expected to be posted on OCTA’s website next Monday. The executive summary is available starting on page 12 of this document.

What do you think of the proposed transportation plan?  Let us know in the comments.

Please contact Nick Gerda directly at ngerda@gmail.com  and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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